It’s a small town where everybody knows everybody, their families and their business, perhaps a little too well. Jackson runs the bar, Arch runs the store, Avery is the sheriff, Neil coaches the baseball team, Lily takes care of her grandmother Edna, quilting in her wheelchair and maintaining a rivalry with Agnes, mother of Casey who hasn’t been right since the accident four years ago which he and barmaid Ramona survived but the sheriff’s daughter didn’t.
It’s the weekend of the carnival and the sun is high, one of the last times the friends will all be together before some of them take off for college, but Ted and Angie are absent – could they have skipped town already? The day wears on, with drinking and smoking, and one of them makes a suggestion for the evening – “After the bonfire, why don’t we all go to the cemetery and tell ghost stories?”
Titled Death Screams on original release in the summer of 1982 though also known as House of Death and sometimes Night Screams, the smalltown low budget slasher aims for Friday the 13th but carries the menace of Little House on the Prairie, the first double killing taking place before the ultra-slow motion underwater title sequence yet with the first body not discovered until a full hour into the feature.
Directed by former child actor David Nelson from a screenplay apparently drafted by Paul C Elliott in a single week, time is spent establishing the plethora of characters and their familial, platonic and romantic relationships and rivalries, but this never actually succeeds in making them interesting, characters periodically vanishing as they are graphically executed by an unseen assailant but with no impact on the daily routine.
With a full third of Death Screams filmed at a local carnival, what should be a backdrop to the narrative actually supercedes it, the viewer watching other people having the bare minimum of fun with much of the dialogue lost beneath the noise of the rides while the undiscovered bodies of Ted and Angie drift in tandem further down the river, Elliott apparently inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None but presenting less of a whodunnit and more of a who cares?
Rescued from oblivion by Arrow Films with a 2K restoration from an archival 35mm print which also features two commentaries, a new documentary and an alternative VHS title sequence, cropped and of lower resolution but with a noticeably brighter image, while it is hard to single out one aspect of Death Screams as worst, Dee Barton’s bombastic soundtrack demands attention, moving from overdramatic to muzak to inappropriately funky jazz horns during the killings as though attempting to distract from them while again, perhaps mercifully, overwhelming the dialogue.